What do you get the luxury automaker that has everything? In the case of Lexus, the logical answer would seem to be the 2015 Lexus NX compact crossover. Indeed, it’s a bit puzzling that the brand whose most popular vehicle is a mid-size ‘ute – the Lexus RX – would wait so many years to introduce an entry-level sibling to soak up some of that customer enthusiasm. And yet here we are, 15 years after Lexus joined the premium crossover club, getting our first look at small people mover that seems poised to ascend the ranks of sales success as soon as it becomes available this coming November.
And what a look. The 2015 Lexus NX represents perhaps the boldest example of the Japanese company’s new design language, resulting in a luxury crossover that is equal parts aggressive and classy. Even Lexus’ traditional hybrid and nascent F Sport performance lines are represented in the NX family, giving the it a chance to snag both frugal and more daring drivers. I was given the opportunity to pilot the Lexus NX around the twisty, high-altitude roads surrounding the Whistler, British Columbia ski resort and discovered that the fresh-faced crossover is at its heart very much a Lexus – a fact which influences its desirability in both positive and negative fashion.
Lexus’ Little Stormtrooper
The 2015 Lexus NX looks like it wants to beat you up. I say this with admiration, as the collection of angled surfaces, sloped roof, and unusual, black-flared fenders works better with the company’s large, jutting spindle grille than any other model in the Lexus line-up. At the same time it includes a number of eye-catching details, such as its available L-shaped LED headlamps, L-shaped tail lights, and the precision creases molded into its tailgate. You can even get LED fog lamps that will illuminate one side of the road or the other when the turn signals are activated. While the Lexus NX may evoke menace – especially when ordered in F Sport trim, which includes standard 18-inch rims, a more aggressive front bumper, and a black mesh version of the spindle – it’s a classy kind of malevolence, like a pint-sized mafia enforcer in an impeccably-tailored suit calmly suggesting that you make your monthly payment in a timely manner. Few luxury crossovers take this type of design risk, making the NX a styling stand-out.
The Lexus NX’s interior also manages to feel more cohesive than other entry-level efforts from the brand, as it lacks the stark, almost clinical layout that afflicts the equally-affordable Lexus IS sedan. As is fashionable amongst luxury vehicles at the moment, an LCD panel has been stuck on top of the center stack so that it rises up and over the dash like a baby monolith, but the rest of the NX’s control surfaces are clean and easy to access (with one exception that I’ll explain in more detail shortly). The NX F Sport gets a few additional gauges, including nice digital boost gauge on the 4.2-inch LCD screen nestled between the tachometer and speedometer, as well as a fun a G-meter that visually maps out the boundaries of your excursions past one Earth gravity.
The crossover’s power seats are wrapped in ‘NuLuxe’ on base and F Sport models, but leather can be ordered as an option. Not everyone who rode with me in the NX F Sport felt comfortable with the tightness of its unique sport seats, but all agreed that the red inserts they came with looked sharp. There’s also a cool inductive charging system in the center console that will top up your mobile phone’s battery once it's placed it on the charging pad (provided that it’s compatible with the Qi charging system, which most non-Apple phones are).
Remote Touch Redux
The biggest disappointment with the 2015 Lexus NX’s feature set is the new version of the automaker’s Remote Touch vehicle interface. In place of the jumpy, difficult-to-use mouse-like controller found in all other Lexus products is a new touchpad that is… jumpy and difficult-to-use. Sadly, while marginally less apt to make a wrong menu selection when hitting a bump in the road, the pad can’t overcome Remote Touch’s awkward menu design, cumbersome interface, and dated graphics. The new feature also comes with a haptic feedback feature that makes it feel like it’s tilting loosely all over the place – luckily you can dial it down, or turn it off completely, which is what I did.
Room To Do What You Need To Do
Compact crossovers are frequently seen as alternatives to moving up to a mid-size sedan by buyers who need extra space but who don’t want to go all-out and fill the driveway with a large SUV. The 2015 Lexus NX certainly optimizes its Toyota RAV4-based platform (a very useful vehicle in its own right), and while the two small utility vehicles might share a wheelbase, suspension mounting points, dashboard, and front floor, 90 percent of the NX’s parts have been re-engineered in order to better carry out their luxury mission. This includes the extensive use of body adhesives in the assembly process so as to keep the crossover quieter than the RAV4 during normal driving.
Passenger room is also good for the Lexus NX, with adult riders having no trouble finding comfort in the second row with the two front positions occupied. When it’s time to put the NX to work, folding down the rear seats reveals 54.5 cubic feet of total cargo space – a figure that only drops by one cube for the hybrid edition of the crossover due to the clever decision to split its battery pack in half and position each module on either side of the back row of accommodations (also providing better weight balance for the hybrid). Lexus has also carved out storage space for the vehicle’s tonneau cover underneath the load floor, which makes it much easier to stow it when loading over-sized items like bikes or furniture into the NX.
All-New Turbocharged Engine
Motivating the 2015 Lexus NX 200t and 200t F Sport is an all-new turbocharged four-cylinder motor that was completely developed in-house. Even the 2.0-liter unit’s twin-scroll turbo was designed and built by Lexus, and the company’s engineers gave it an air-to-liquid intercooler and a 4-2-1 exhaust manifold design in an effort to improve smoothness and efficiency.
The extra time was well spent, as the NX 200t’s 235 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque are sufficiently lively when accelerating the crossover at a full 17 psi of boost, yet the engine never crosses the line into rambunctious, preserving the Lexus’ luxury flavor. The motor is paired with an equally-new six-speed automatic transmission that features paddle shifters for the F Sport model. An all-wheel drive system that can send up to 50 percent of power to the rear wheels is optional with the turbocharged NX, and fuel economy stands at 24-mpg combined for all models. This figure is made possible in part by an innovative engine management system that can actually switch to a more efficient Atkinson combustion cycle during steady-state driving.
The 2015 Lexus NX maintains the marque’s reputation for leadership in the battery-assisted segment by offering the well-tuned NX 300h hybrid. Featuring a 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine and a single electric motor (front-wheel drive models), total system output is listed at 194 horsepower. If you opt for all-wheel drive, you get another electric motor to drive the rear axles via an electronic clutch when extra traction is needed. The 300h’s continuously-variable automatic transmission offers a ‘kick-down’ feature designed to make it easier to pass. I didn’t notice much of a difference between the NX's gearbox and others of its ilk when driving, but I did like the manners of the adequately-powered hybrid model. Like most eco-conscious Lexus vehicles there’s an EV mode, and in fact when you back up only the electric motor is used – which would make the NX a precision tool for stealthily eliminating unsuspecting pedestrians were it not for the warning sound emanating from the speaker mounted curiously on its front bumper.
A Good Commuter, But Not Sporty
Try as it might, Lexus has yet to create an F Sport model that feels legitimately engaging to drive. The 2015 Lexus NX F Sport has seen its shocks and springs re-tuned for additional road-holding along with the addition of a trick strut bar at the rear of vehicle, which in theory should give it a handling edge over the base version of the crossover. Unfortunately, when driven hard the NX F Sport feels more twitchy and overly-stiff than planted and confident, never dangerous but at the same time not inspiring anyone to push it hard. In fact, near the limit the suspension’s bouncy nature made me want to back away from the edge of its performance envelope rather than explore it further.
In contrast, the base Lexus NX 200t in no way had me nervous through the mountain passes of northern British Columbia, as its more forgiving dampeners were not only more comfortable but also better at keeping the crossover stable while cornering. Given that there’s no difference in engine output between the 200t and 200t F Sport, I heartily recommend the former’s driving experience. Even the 300h hybrid, while not as quick or nimble as the turbocharged NX, was preferable to the F Sport from a comfort and control perspective.
Each version of the crossover comes with Lexus’ Drive Mode Select system for customizing transmission, throttle, and steering response, with Eco, Normal, and Sport modes to choose from. You also have access to a competitive set of safety technologies when ordering the Lexus NX: an adaptive stop-and-go cruise control system, forward collision warning with automatic braking below 37-mph, a blind spot warning system, and a lane departure warning system are all available with the vehicle.
A Great, And Long-Overdue Compact Luxury Crossover
The 2015 Lexus NX had me wondering why it took the automaker so long to bring this baby ‘ute to market. After putting a few hundred miles on the NX it’s clear to me that once Lexus customers get their own opportunity to take a test drive the crossover will soon become a hot commodity with the young buyers that the brand craves (pricing was not available at the time of publication, but expect the base NX to fall somewhere between $30-$35k.). Sure, the F Sport can’t deliver any bite to go with its avant-garde bark, but stick with the 200t or 300h versions of this small crossover and you’ll enjoy a package that drives vanilla-smooth but looks cayenne-spicy in the parking lot at work.